How to be a Spiritually Abusive Pastor and Get Away With It

Posted: January 25, 2015 in Uncategorized, When Church Hurts
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Several years ago, my friend, Dorothy, was a member of a church in which the pastor stalked, bullied, shamed, and publicly preached about her. She left that church a long time ago, but the pastor is still there. A few months ago, I had lunch with a woman who had recently stopped attending that same church saying that the pastor was “too controlling.” She told me about the many people who had come and gone in the short time that she and her husband had attended there. It was obvious that people were drawn in easily but that the pastor’s abusiveness drove them away almost as quickly. This church has a revolving door.

So, while he is still the pastor there twenty-something years later, I would not say that he is “getting away with” his abusive behavior because there is a revolving door of members and attenders. People who come there are drawn in by his charisma but whether it be a short time or a long time, they eventually recognize his abusiveness and they don’t hang around. That’s not “getting away with” it – that’s surviving it.

He and many other pastors could take a lesson from the pastor of my former church because he has mastered the art of abusing people and getting away with it. It’s really very simple. Let me explain.

All you have to do to get away with abusing people is to master the art of making other people think it was their idea. Our former pastor was masterful in leading people whatever direction he wanted to go, abusive or not, but they would absolutely believe they were the incredibly wise and God-inspired person who came up with the vision, solution, or answer on their own.

When this pastor first came to the church, he would wine and dine (tea and cookie) the elderly and aging members – drinking tea with little old ladies in their retirement homes and expressing his concern that the church would be losing her young people. “What can the church do to keep your grandchildren interested and attending? They don’t like the same music, dress the same way, or have the same interests. The world has and is changing so quickly and how can the church ever compete? What would keep your grandchildren coming to church?”

And all the while, the unassuming grandma and grandpa would think they were advising this new, young pastor. “Why of course, Pastor Elliott, my grandchildren mean the world to me and, of course, I would do anything to keep them interested in coming to church. Since they like newer music, maybe we should have a service where they can sing the songs they like. Maybe we can let them dress more casually. Maybe we should even step aside from the leadership positions we hold and let some younger adults take the lead and make the decisions. After all, they have a better understanding of what our young people want and need to stay in the church.”

Our first several years in the church, there were congregational meetings in which the pastor would present the “challenges” the church was facing but without a concrete solution. Yet, the challenges themselves were framed in such a way that they indicated the most obvious solutions. So people would look at the challenges and offer the solution the pastor was looking for – and all the while they would think that they had made the decision, when, in fact, they were being led down a pre-determined path. The pastor would then have all of the support he needed to carry out the people’s decision – whether financial or organizational.

Over the years, a subtle transition began to take place. Whenever there was a congregational vote on what could be a controversial topic, the senior pastor would be out of town and his inner-circle of elders and deacons would be on hand to answer questions. Only no one wanted to question them. They wanted to know what the pastor thought, but since he was conveniently unavailable, their questions would go unasked and unanswered.

As the years went by, and the church grew into a mega-church, the people came to trust the pastor more and more to the point that they no longer had an elder board that contributed to decision making. The governance of the church was completely altered so that only the senior pastor and a very small number of high-level staff and a couple of hand-picked lay people were on the “executive team” and that team holds all of the power in the church. Congregational meetings aren’t even held any more and there is some speculation that even the voting that takes for elders and deacons (see my post on what elders and deacons do) is a sham.

To give the appearance that the elders were involved in decision making, there would be regular occasions in which the congregation was told that elders would be available in a room near the church cafe/coffee bar to answer questions. My husband spent nearly every Sunday for fifteen years volunteering from 7 AM to noon at that coffee bar and people would come by asking where the elders were. He rarely saw them. And the pastor was never one of those who would show up to talk to people and answer their questions or speak to their concerns. Only a hand full of people ever stopped in to ask a question and even then, the elders usually had not shown up, so there was no one there with whom they could have a conversation anyway.

People who had legitimate concerns that called in to question a decision or practice that the senior pastor and his inner circle had made or were supporting (you can read about my particular situation in part 3 of my story) were farmed out to lay leadership to deal with. In my story, those who were assigned to deal with me had never had a conversation with me until they each, in turn over the years, told me that I was not allowed to serve, particpate, attend, etc., but would not and could not tell me what I had done to cause this punishment.

It wasn’t until we were tossed out of the church that we learned that the senior pastor had been sharing confidential information in which I questioned first a staff persons’ behavior, and after the first abusive treatment I received, all of the other communications I had made with the senior pastor regarding the growing abusive treatment I was enduring at the hands of his staff and leadership.

Once again, it became obvious that the senior pastor had shared those communications with his staff and leadership in order to lead them to the conclusion that I deserved to be ostracized. And since they were the ones to reach that conclusion, he then encouraged them to carry out the “solution” by conveying the verdict. When I would go to the senior pastor for help and support, he would avoid and ignore my pleas, but when in public where others could see, he would smile, wave, greet, and be extremely friendly. This sent the message to anyone watching that he and I were on splendid terms and that he in no way had any negativity toward me whatsoever.

I doubt that those who were assigned to carry out the spiritual abuse I received realized that their actions were unbiblical and abusive – but that didn’t matter. As long as they dealt with the person who was asking questions or pointing out a problem in such a way as to stifle them, mute them, spiritually castrate them, and hog-tie them, it was fine by the senior pastor. In fact, he was counting on the underlings’ ineptness, inexperience, and lack of biblical knowledge so that when their handling of these situations led to abusive treatment, they could be excused. After all, they were young, growing and learning, and therefore, their mishandling and mistakes should be overlooked, and forgiven.

But never, ever was there to be an apology. Never, ever was there to be an admission of wrong-doing. Never, ever was there to be a point where the senior pastor would step in and assist in making reparations. Instead, while his staff and leadership were spiritually brutalizing people (I now know I was not the only one), the senior pastor would be pretending that he had no idea that anything was amiss. The two or three times that I had an opportunity to ask if he had gotten my emails, he would say to me, “I just don’t understand what you are saying” as though the concept of someone treating me so horrendously was simply mind-boggling to him. And, of course, those conversations were so brief and on-the-fly, as well as startling, that I was often simply rendered mute and couldn’t bring myself to question him further.

Once, when I did gather enough courage to ask why I was being ostracized, his exact words were, “I don’t make all of the decisions around here.”

And that’s the key.

If pastors want to spiritually abuse people and get away with it, they need to master the art of manipulating others into doing the dirty work for him or her. Lead them with such intentionality that they are honored that their opinions and wisdom are welcomed and necessary to the church’s success and then allow them to carry out their own suggestions.

In the mean time, pastors, you need to be as kind, caring, smiling, positive, naive, and winsome as possible. Pretend you not only know nothing, but that you are so naive that you couldn’t possible entertain the thought that someone else would treat people so shamefully. And when the abused ask for your help, make sure you are too busy to sit down with them and have a conversation. If they press you, tell them you just don’t understand what they are wanting or trying to tell you. And, no matter what, don’t ever undermine the authority that those you have in leadership have been given to carry out their decisions in whatever way they deem most appropriate. After all, “You don’t make all the decisions around here.”

  1. clockworkjosh says:

    First problem is the sole authority of “pastors’ is unbiblical. Elders share leadership duties collectively.

  2. ndnd9 says:

    Hello When Church Hurts: `Jesus warned us against false teachers, but sometimes it still takes a long time to spot them. The Pharisees and Sadducees of his time were rich and respected, but he called them hypocrites. Only with God’s help can we hope to recognize the false teachers who hide in sheep’s clothing. Best wishes for your spiritual journey. ND (Nancy Dobson of nomagicwandchristianity blog).

  3. I’ve experienced intense spiritual verbal abuse for years, so I know
    that what you are saying is true. I tried for years to overlook what was
    happening since confronting the pastor seemed so wrong. I was
    made to feel like a troublemaker when the one doing the abusing was
    the actual troublemaker. Like you said, he would be so friendly and
    congenial in public most people wouldn’t believe he was capable of
    such behavior. He would pick and choose who he could be abusive to
    without it being too obvious. Usually it’s the ones that have a true love
    for God and don’t want to question authority in the church. We are told
    to question anyone in authority is akin to questioning God Himself.
    There are many wolves in sheep’s clothing. The bible even says so.
    But I think there is a difference between someone who knowingly abuses
    the sheep because he can, and those that think they are doing it to
    honor God…keeping order in God’s house by any means possible or
    “necessary”. If you think you are being abused in God’s house, you probably
    are. I can’t imagine someone in a healthy church led by healthy leaders and
    surrounded by like-minded believers in Christ who truly love God and love
    each other wanting to leave such a church and feeling like they are being
    abused. If you feel that way, you probably are. God gives His children discernment
    for a reason. I was in denial for years and probably stayed a bit too long in
    that church. When I finally left, I was attacked by the second pastor in much the
    same way. I now know the first pastor influenced the second one and now I
    almost feel blackballed in this town as far as churches are concerned. To those
    who think it can’t happen, IT CAN!! If you are in a healthy christian church
    and your pastor is a true, loving man or woman of God, you’d better be
    thankful for that. If not, pray and ask God if you should leave. Don’t allow
    years of abuse to fog up your spiritual journey with the Lord. Nothing is worth that!!

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